There are two main interpretations of the Trump era in American politics.
The first holds that the past four-and-a-half-years, since Trump’s de facto capture of the Republican base, has been a sad charade—the opportunistic capture of America’s right-wing and disaffected working-class—a tour de force by a celebrity conman on his last legs.
The second, as liberal historian Thomas Frank surmises, is that his famous voters in What’s the Matter with Kansas? finally “found somewhere else to go.”
Conservatives misunderstood their mandate for at least a generation. Trump voters in some of America’s poorest congressional districts weren’t voting for an adjustment of American status quo—one where the U.S. empire was more unbridled and the international “free” market was less encumbered—but rather, the abolition of the system itself. It’s the ideas, stupid.
Only the most ideological of thinking would fail to concede a morsel of truth in both interpretations. Trump’s celebrity was clearly value-added. But seminal moments from the 2015-2016 campaign trail elucidated a clear agenda: immigration control, trade nationalism, and foreign policy restraint. This red-hot policy troika horrified aged Republican elites but thrilled a significant Republican rump, and most importantly, bequeathed a would-be president with downright star-power and crossover appeal.
Genuine immigration reform has been stillborn in Trump’s first term; his base has forgiven him and will continue to do so. The trade pyrotechnics—a new, justified cold war with China—largely have been a success, yielding an assured paradigm shift on the matter, whether Trump wins or loses in November. A grudging, even underground respect has developed for the president’s mettle on trade matters—“I support Trump’s trade policies only,” as Ian Fletcher, president of the Coalition for a Prosperous America and author of Free Trade Doesn’t Work puts it.
But foreign policy under Donald Trump, the area of greatest presidential maneuverability, has been, in its worst moments, schizophrenic. Defenders of the recent tack—a messianic, misguided hawkishness on Iran that Trump inherited from the party mandarins he overthrew—say it’s Trump at his best, vigilant in defense of American “interests,” yet avoiding war. But judging by the evidence, the president, who vaulted to power by trashing the George W. Bush legacy, is uneasy with his own diagnosis.
On Wednesday, Trump prudently declined to retaliate for (apparently nonlethal) Iranian missile strikes on an American airbase in Iraq. The regime, a boxed-in clerical outfit operating from Tehran, was responding to one of Trump’s most entrepreneurial maneuvers as president yet: the killing of the feared Iranian military leader, General Qassem Soleimani. Running point for the administration since summer has been Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state who edged out his rival John Bolton for control of the national security apparatus in order to pursue his own particular flavor of Iran hawkishness. Pompeo said the late major general was plotting a “large-scale attack,” although, as he’s loath to concede, likely in occupied Iraq, and not the American mainland. It’s worth noting that American civilians have not been the target of Shia terrorists since the 1980s; we’ve spent the last two decades fighting Sunni terrorists like al-Qaeda and ISIS.
And that, as of this week, say whatever you will of Trump’s successes, is where we are.
Iraq, 17 years after the alleged final word on the matter, the decapitation of Saddam’s regime in Baghdad, is under American occupation. When the Iraqi parliament votes to expel your forces, after your country effectively founds said country as a putative democracy, and you reject the decisions of its elected government nonetheless, that’s called an occupation, not an alliance.
That’s the ultimate risk of Trump’s recent gambit. The president has changed things, forever, and there is no going back. Reasoned cases can be made on both sides of the Soleimani slaying. This writer, whose political coming of age was Iraq, fears blowback . . . in Iraq. But the fear is that a semi-revolutionary moment could be squandered, as former Senator John Kerry once notoriously said, all to “get stuck in Iraq”—which is exactly where we’ve been since 2003 and the place President Trump promised to leave. There is no victory in Iraq or Iran and Trump knows this, which is why he promised to extricate the country from the region and focus on problems at home.
The danger is that the “glasnost,” or openness, of recent years—questioning a decrepit NATO’s legitimacy, reorientation on China, still further talk of exodus in the Middle East—is for naught. The specter of no “perestroika,” no restructuring, looms large. The president can tinker at the edges, play madman on the international stage, and extract concessions from the decades-long fixation of the deep state he wars with: Iran. As America’s crumbling highways and Iraq’s lonesome legislature can attest, he could also do better.